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November 18, 1998 SLAVE RELIGIONThe “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum SouthThe book Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South was written by Albert J. Raboteau and was first published in 1978 by the Oxford University Press, Inc.At the start of the Atlantic slave trade, Christianity was used as the great rationalism for enslaving Africans. The Portuguese journalist Comes Eannes De Azurara wrote: “for though their bodies were now brought into some subjection, that was a small matter in comparison of their souls, which would now possess true freedom for evermore.” (page 96) This rationalism set the stage for four hundred years of reasoning that the people of Africa were better off as slaves in the white man s world than to continue their own pitiful existence in Africa. This thin disguise for justification of slavery even extended to condemning the Africans lifestyle. Azurara continued to say that everything about the African, his clothing, housing and lack of European type knowledge was inferior. Since he could not tell the difference between good and evil the African was less than human. Azurara went so far as to compare the African s lifestyle to that of a “bestial sloth”. (page 97) In the beginning of modern slavery, the English planters were opposed to the Christianization of the slaves. Missionaries were refused access to the slaves November 18, 1998 because, although English law was imprecise on the subject, it was widely believed that if the slaves were baptized they would be immediately emancipated. (page 98) Several colonies passed legislation which made it clear that the Christianization of a person did not have any impact on his status of being slave or free. (page 99) Even at this time there were many clergy who believed the main reason the planters were against bringing the Christian religion to the slaves was their belief that slaves were less than human and about the same as any other animal on their estate. (pages 100, 101 and 108) Even after the laws were passed, there were other obstacles. One group that actively worked to Christianize the slaves was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). An SPG member wrote a letter to the London secretary complaining that it was most difficult to reach the slaves. The slave owners only gave the slaves one day off usually on Sunday and many of them had to work a small piece of land that day to help support themselves and their families. Other slave owners forced their slaves to work seven days a week and there was no time for religion. (page 99) Of course language was a problem, as well as the mannerisms of the slaves. It was felt that the customs of the Africans were so bizarre that they were socially and November 18, 1998 mentally incapable of grasping the ways of Christianity. But, slaves who were born in America he or she were regularly baptized and raised within the Christian religion. (page 100)Many of the SPG tried to convince slave owners that the slaves had “equal Right with other Men, to the Exercises and privileges of Religion”. (page 101) This attitude did not set well with the slave owners. They felt Christianity would ruin the slaves by making them think that if they were equal to the white person in the eyes of God, they should be equal in every other way. (page102) This, in turn, would make the slaves proud, unmanageable and may even incite them to take up arms against their masters. (page 103) The slaves reactions to the whites religious efforts toward them during the colonial period were varied. When the missionary could break the communication barrier and the slave owners’ objections, the result of his preaching was not always what he had hoped it would be. The Reverend James Blair wrote that he did not believe the majority of the converted slaves accepted Christianity for the right reasons. He felt the main reason was so they would receive more respect and that it might one day lead to freedom. (page 123) In some areas Christianity was accepted by the slave because of its similarity to the religion he had left in Africa. For example: 1. Both religions believed in a supreme being. 2. The concept of the November 18, 1998 father, son and the holy ghost was close to the African belief in multiple divinities. 3. The theory of a life after death was not foreign to the slave. 4. The idea that good shall conquer evil and the evil doer will somehow be punished are common themes in both religions. 5. They shared the view that one should admire, respect and pray to the supreme being. Although there were many differences these similarities made it easy for some to accept Christianity. (page 126-127) The Great Awakening of the 1730 s and 1740 s signified the beginning of a mass conversion to Christianity by the slaves. The revival had a great impact on both black and white people of the time. Its impact was more than just the vast numbers that converted by the end of the century, it was one of the earliest times when white ministers believed that slaves were genuine in their beliefs. It was reported on several occasions that the acceptance of Christianity by many blacks was real and not an act. (page 128-129) The number of converts to Christianity by the end of the century was astonishing. (page 150) By 1797 there were more than 12,000 black Methodists and approximately 18,000 to 19,000 black Baptists. (page 131)By the beginning of the 1800 s, Christianity started to grow among all the blacks, both slave and free, who lived in and around towns and November 18, 1998 cities. (page 152) A large majority of the black population lived in rural and plantation areas and could not get to the churches. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was determined by church leaders such as Charles Colcock Jones that if the slaves could not come to the churches in the towns and cities, the church would go to the slaves. (page 149) The idea of plantation missions begin to spread and gain in popularity. The church leaders addressed the problem of confronting the slave owners at their association meeting. They wrote essays and sermons preaching the value of reaching the lost souls of the forgotten blacks on the plantations. The clergy and their volunteers began associations of their own and gained interdenominational contacts and spread the idea via religious periodicals and pamphlets. These writings were just the start. In 1830-31 there were missionary societies and associations founded for the express purpose of providing plantation slaves with religious education. (page 154-155)

The most common approach was the “judicious system of religious instruction”. (page 161) The missionaries believed that this system would improve the morality of the slaves and make them more trustworthy, honorable and dependable. (page 162) The method consisted of six precepts. The first objective November 18, 1998 was to deliver the message of Christianity at the “level of understanding” of the slave. The second objective was to have one or two meetings at the plantation with the master and his family. This was extremely difficult to do because of logistics and the reluctance of slave owners to participate. The third goal was to establish Sabbath schools. Because of the anti-literacy laws, the fourth step was to teach Christianity using the oral method. The fifth precept was to gather all of the black members of the church together at special times of the year to further their education. This proved to be very important because the slaves needed “as much instruction after admission to the church as before”. The last rule of instruction was that no meeting was to ever be held without the express knowledge and permission of the slave owners. (page 160-161) The contradiction between the ideas of Christianity and the realties of slave life led to a paradox in the slaves minds. This inconsistency often led to slave rebellion. Religious leaders recognized that the relationship between the slave owners and the slaves must be consistent with the values of Christianity. This was a very difficult thing to accomplish since the morality of the religion did not support the institution of slavery. People such as Nat Turner led revolts in the name of Christianity, saying that he was given a sign from God. (page 163-164) November 18, 1998 The black church grew for many reasons. One of the main reasons was that the black man was allowed to preach, after much controversy and legal maneuvering. Although this was not the norm it gave the black community it s only avenue for some self governing and control. It was not unusual for there to be mixed churches where black and white prayed together. In most mixed churches were led by white ministers. In some of the mixed churches the blacks out numbered the whites. In the First Baptist Church in the Dover Association, the blacks outnumbered the whites four to one for many years. The fact that black churches were larger than the white churches was not extraordinary. The largest church in the Dover Association was the First African Church of Richmond that boasted 3,260 members in 1860. In 1851, the First African Church of Petersburg was the largest church in the Portsmouth Baptist Association of Virginia, with over 1,600 members. There were examples in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Georgia where the largest and most attended churches were the black ones. (page 199-200) According to the research of W. E. B. Du Bois, there were 468,000 black church members in the south before the beginning of the Civil War. (page 210) The religion of the slaves had two faces, one visible and one invisible. The visible one was the one on display. It was formal, organized and institutional. This November 18, 1998 was the religion that was allowed by the slave owners. The typical religious service was one that the masters sanctioned. The preacher was usually restricted to telling the slaves to obey their masters, not to steal from their masters and never lie to their masters. Often there was an overseer at the church to be sure the preacher did not stray from the gospel according to the slave owner. If the preacher or the congregation strayed, punishment was dealt out later. The offenders would be flogged and sometimes flogged to death. (page 214-215) The other side of slave religion was uninstitutional, spontaneous and invisible to the white world. Slaves would sneak into the woods for meetings, have meetings at one of their houses, or at any place where they felt safe from the slave owners’ eyes or ears. They would be very careful not to be too loud or let anyone be carried away with the feeling of religion, so that they would not be caught. In their secret places they would pray for peace and freedom. They would hear sermons on a wide range of religious topics, such as the equality of blacks and whites in God s eyes. (page 218) The slaves religion was also used as a tool by the white man to gain even more control over their lives. The slaves often used the new religion to support them emotionally when they had been worked so hard they felt they could go no further. In some cases the indoctrination of Christianity resulted in complete November 18, 1998 11/18/98further. In some cases the indoctrination of Christianity resulted in complete acceptance of the plight of slaves in the Americas. Phyllis Wheatley, a slave, wrote: Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,Taught my benighted soul to understandThat there s a God (page 44)However, slaves did not feel the same as Phyllis Wheatley. As slave owners and missionaries found out, the promise of everlasting peace and freedom were not always enough to keep the slaves docile and working hard for their masters. The slaves expected God to act within their lifetimes the same as he had done for the Israelites in biblical times. The slaves felt a moral superiority to white people when they followed their new religion. They knew the religion did not support what the slave owners were doing. The paradoxes between what white men preached and the actions taken by white men against the blacks led to resentment and often to rebellion. Religion gave slaves a place of freedom and a feeling that their lives meant something other than being beasts of burden. (page 318, 319 and 320)


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